How a couple's gift to a university benefits more than just college students

The McVay Youth Partnership at Hamline University offers paid leadership opportunities for students, who mentor middle- and high-schoolers. The program was endowed by Pete and Mary McVay.

Courtesy of the McVay Youth Partnership
Youth participants in the McVay Youth Partnership enjoy roller-skating with the program’s staff members in the Twin Cities.

In the early 2000s, Pete and Mary McVay were considering a major gift to Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., which enrolls 2,100 undergraduates, plus graduate students. But the McVays didn’t want to just make a simple donation or set up a typical scholarship program. They wanted their gift to benefit several entities, including the surrounding community.

So Dan Loritz, then Hamline’s vice president of university relations, held dozens of meetings with the McVays as they explored together a creative philanthropic approach. “Finally, after nearly two years, we all agreed we had something special,” remembers Mr. Loritz, who is now president of a nonprofit in St. Paul.

The result was the McVay Youth Partnership. Specifically, the McVays’ gift endows a long-term initiative that offers paid leadership opportunities for Hamline students. These students then mentor middle- and high-schoolers in underserved neighborhoods. Area churches provide the space and hospitality for the program.

“My father’s desire was to support initiatives that reflected a true Christian ethic of serving others. With this program, the impact of love for and service to others is manifest at all levels,” says Kita McVay, one of Mr. McVay’s daughters, who keeps a beneficent eye on the enterprise and serves on Hamline’s board of trustees.

Hamline launched the McVay Youth Partnership in 2004 under the leadership of Jane Krentz and the support of Loritz. McVay fellows are typically college juniors and seniors who have demonstrated leadership skills and have had experience working with youths. They form teams of four and are responsible for planning and leading the programming at their assigned site. The fellows are assisted by McVay interns and associates. All staff members receive training.

The plan started with six fellows and eight interns, but the idea was so appealing to the Hamline student body that even the first year saw a flood of interest. “As soon as we announced the program, we had far more applicants than spaces,” Ms. Krentz says.

This past academic year there were 22 fellows, 14 associates, and 18 interns. Altogether, just over 280 Hamline students have participated.

The programming for the middle- and high-schoolers takes place at four sites three times a week. The McVay students offer the youths after-school activities, help them with homework, and encourage fun and conversation. Krentz says the effect can be far-reaching: “Not only do the college students actively help younger kids with tangible tasks, but through their regular and dependable presence they become positive role models – offering an example of kindness and service to others, a vision of what might be possible, the reality of college as a goal.”

The program is free of charge for the youths, and it’s open to all who agree to follow three rules: respect yourself, respect others, and respect property.

The McVay Youth Partnership serves a large number of Karen refugees (the Karen have been a persecuted ethnic group in Myanmar, also called Burma). Participants also include children whose parents emigrated from many Latin American and African countries.

The Hamline students “have been instrumental in their acclimation here,” Krentz says, “and often offer important help and guidance, academically and socially.” In addition, the children enjoy the generosity of the church congregations, whose volunteers bake cookies, provide other snacks, and offer a welcoming space. [Editor's note: The wording of the quote in this paragraph was revised slightly to better reflect the speaker's sentiments.]

Life-changing for the college students

Mr. McVay, who was a longtime executive at the agribusiness company Cargill, saw the program thrive before his death in 2011. Indeed, all the McVay architects have witnessed Hamline students speak passionately about their McVay experience and how their perspectives and career plans have changed. Perhaps best of all, according to Kita: Some children who participated in the program entered Hamline and themselves became McVay fellows. “The circle comes fully around in heartwarming ways,” she says.

Jessa Williams is one such individual, having been involved with the McVay Youth Partnership as a youth and then becoming a McVay intern and fellow as a student at Hamline. She says her professional path is a result of her experiences with the program, beginning with the opportunity to meet inspiring college students who were mentors and encouraged her to aspire to previously inconceivable goals. “One day I shared with a fellow ... that my dream was to travel the world. She heard this and helped me consider youth exchange programs,” Ms. Williams says via email. “This helped me to achieve something that I never thought was possible (studying in Japan), and has directly led me to where I am today (working for a municipal government in Japan).”

She adds, “Through McVay I have learned to think beyond what I know, to reach for new and endless possibilities.”

Annual party and dinner

At the end of each academic year, Krentz plans a party for the youths and Hamline students. She also plans a catered dinner to recognize all the participating Hamline students, with a special nod to the graduating seniors – although Kita remembers how it wasn’t always quite so formal. “We could basically sit down with current and former fellows and have lunch,” she says. “But it’s grown so much, and so many of the program alumni want to come back and celebrate with us, that Jane puts on a dinner each year.”

Mary McVay, Pete’s widow, still attends the dinner each year, as does Loritz. Mary says it is always a touching experience: “I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and thanks from these young adults every year, and how connected they are long after they leave Hamline.”

Mary says she is proud of the program’s positive effects on the Hamline and St. Paul communities and beyond.

“It’s a wonderful legacy for Pete,” she reflects. “My great hope is that other communities might pick up the template and create similar service-oriented programs across the country.”

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